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Olympic-Sized Security Fears

When the London Olympics begin, spectators and television viewers captivated by the feats of the world’s finest athletes won’t be the only ones holding their collective breath. After a build-up dominated by concerns over security, the British government, the Games organizers, and the security services will be hoping the event passes off without incident. While plans are in place to deal with everything from anti-capitalist protests to cyber-crime, the biggest threat is, of course, a terror attack.

In terms of symbolism, the London Games is arguably the most attractive target to present itself to Islamist terrorists since 9/11 and the onset of the War on Terror, being the first global sporting event since then to be held in the capital city of one of the nations deemed to be waging war on the Muslim world. While the 2002 Winter Games were held at Salt Lake City in Utah, that venue did not hold the same cache for al-Qaeda and its affiliates as New York or Washington.

And London is certainly vulnerable, as the 7/7 bus and subway bombings of 2005 showed. Salt Lake City was a relatively isolated venue in comparison and more easily secured, even before America was placed on its highest state of alert. Prospective Arab or Asian terrorists would have found it difficult to keep a low profile in a relatively small city in the western United States populated largely by Mormons and winter-sports enthusiasts. By contrast, Britain’s teeming, multicultural capital has long been home to the ethnic minority communities from which all manner of terrorist groups have drawn their support and their foot soldiers; not for nothing has the city been referred to as “Londonistan.”

As if Britain's status among jihadists as a “minor” Satan wasn't lure enough, the presence of Israeli athletes provides an obvious target for both al-Qaeda and Iranian-backed groups such as Hezbollah -- since the massacre at the 1972 Munich Games, they have supplanted the Palestine Liberation Organization as the greatest threat to Jewish interests worldwide. Israel has accused Hezbollah of being behind last week's bus bombing in Bulgaria, and reports in the British press have claimed that Mossad agents are hunting for terrorists planning an attack to coincide with the 40th anniversary of Munich. (The International Olympic Committee, meanwhile, has shamefully refused to hold a minute’s silence for the 11 Israelis murdered at Munich.)

While the British security services have yet to warn of a specific threat to the Games, it’s likely that potential attacks may already have been averted, with several arrests having been made in recent weeks. Six people were detained in a series of raids across London, including one man who lived a half-mile from the Olympic Stadium and a white Muslim convert. Seven others were arrested after guns and ammunition were found in a car stopped by police in northern England.

Police haven’t linked any of the arrests directly to the Olympics, but even if a connection were to be established it would be understandable if the authorities were reluctant to publicize it, for fear of scaring off tourists, spectators, and perhaps even competitors, or of inspiring copycat plots.

With the Games providing such a tempting target, you would expect those responsible for security to be well on top of things at this stage. But while the Olympic Park will be protected by the biggest peacetime security operation ever seen in Britain, and the recent arrests suggest that parts of the security apparatus are operating efficiently, the plans have been beset by a succession of foul-ups and controversies.

A couple of weeks ago it emerged that G4S, the private company tasked with providing security for the Games, had failed to recruit several thousand of the temporary staff it had contracted to provide. Additional police and troops have been brought in to plug the gaps. While the failure is an embarrassment to G4S, the Games organizers, and the government, the fact that dedicated professionals are replacing private staff is something of a silver lining, given concerns over the caliber of some of the people G4S had hired and the level of training they’ve been receiving.

One whistleblower claimed that operators of X-ray machines were routinely failing to spot firearms and explosives in training exercises, and warned that there was a “50-50 chance” of terrorists being able to smuggle weapons into one of the Games venues. Others have claimed that G4S trainees have been cheating in exercises designed to train them on the X-ray equipment.

Many of those hired by G4S are foreign nationals or from immigrant communities. On a practical level this has led to issues with what the BBC euphemistically called “communication skills” -- in other words, many of them can barely speak English. More worryingly, many of these people are being recruited from the very communities that harbor Islamist extremists, and in which radicalization is a serious problem.

In addition to the problems at the Games venues, there are also concerns over immigration checks at London’s Heathrow airport, the main point of entry for tens of thousands of competitors and spectators. Cutbacks have meant that inexperienced staff have been manning the passport desks, and whistleblowers have warned of potentially dangerous failings here too, with claims that arrivals aren’t being checked against watch lists of terror suspects. (Reports that agents from the U.S. Transportation Security Administration will be helping their British colleagues at Heathrow may or may not be a reassurance to American visitors.)

To make matters worse, the union representing immigration and customs staff had threatened to go on strike on the eve of the Games, with hard-left union leaders seizing an opportunity to both embarrass the Conservative-led coalition government and to extort concessions. The strike was called off Wednesday after the union claimed the government had backed down.

Union bosses aren’t the only left-wingers who have been doing their best to sabotage the security operation. A small band of activists protested plans by the Army to place surface-to-air missiles on top of buildings at strategic locations near the Olympic Park. Their objections -- which were thrown out by a judge -- were based on the ludicrous grounds that having missiles on their roof would make them a target for terrorists, notwithstanding the fact that the security around the sites will make them the best-defended locations in London outside the Olympic Stadium itself. Also, al-Qaeda's capabilities do not, so far as we know, extend to flying “wild weasel” missions to take out opposing air defenses.

The fact that the protest was led by professional activists from the Stop The War Coalition suggests it was motivated more by the bloody-minded desire to throw a spanner in the works of the military and security services than by genuine concerns over residents’ safety. It’s not too much of stretch to suspect that some of the more extreme members of that movement would not be entirely disappointed if Islamists were able to strike at the Games.

But a 9/11-style attack, which the missiles have been deployed to prevent, is probably one of the less-likely scenarios those charged with defending London will have to contend with. It's more likely that terrorists will attempt a repeat of the devastatingly effective suicide bombings of 2005, while security chiefs have also long been concerned about the possibility of a Mumbai-style gun attack.

Britain's security services have done a good job of protecting the country in the seven years since the London bombings, having broken up several plots and placing dozens of terrorists behind bars. But the Olympics are an unprecedented challenge, and the police, military, and other agencies would have had their work cut out even without the succession of problems that have arisen.

As several failed bomb plots in the U.S. and UK have shown, luck ultimately plays a large part in determining whether or not a terrorist attack succeeds. While most of the focus in the run-up to London 2012 has been on Islamist terrorism, there have been warnings of a possible attack by dissident Irish republicans opposed to the Northern Ireland peace process. And in the context of the wider threat it’s worth bearing in mind the warning that the Provisional IRA issued to the British government after it narrowly failed to assassinate Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in a bombing in 1984: “Today we were unlucky, but remember we only have to be lucky once. You will have to be lucky always.”

The British people need no reminding that the bombings of 2005 cut short their celebrations the day after they learned that London had won the 2012 Games. They will be hoping that fortune smiles on their capital, and on their Olympics, for the next three weeks.

(See also "Romney's Rookie Mistake in London")